Enabling women and girls represents the single biggest opportunity for human development and economic growth. Despite this and many organizations working to address the issues, according to the World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap Report things have worsened during 2016 and economic gender equality will not be achieved for another 170 years. It is worrying that we are not making progress; unacceptable that we are moving backwards.

It is a well-quoted figure that equality for women in the labour force would add $28 trillion to the global economy by 2025. Providing girls with just one extra year of secondary education can increase their potential income by 15-25%. But outdated norms and gender stereotypes are impeding our own ability to achieve the systemic change required. The same stereotyping affecting women more broadly is holding back the global economic growth and social progress that will come from increased gender equality and women’s empowerment.

Already, women are the world’s most powerful consumers controlling 65% of consumer spending, with an economic impact growing year after year. It is estimated that their incomes will increase from $13 trillion to $18 trillion by 2018. In my job running Unilever’s Personal Care business – manufacturing and selling everything from shampoos, soaps and skin creams to deodorants and toothpaste – women account for more than 70% of our sales. I need no convincing that women’s development is worth investing in.

Every day, 2 billion people use our products. I believe that we can use our scale and reach to effect a positive transformation by challenging the social norms and gender stereotypes that hold women back.

We have built partnerships with many stakeholders to help achieve this, for example between our skincare brand Pond’s and the Vital Voices Partnership, to invest in women leaders who want to find solutions to socio-economic, environmental or human rights issues in their communities. We are also working with the Clinton Giustra Enterprise Partnership (CGEP) to train women entrepreneurs in developing countries and give them access to our distribution networks to help them and their communities to thrive. We are working with UN Women to create programmes to help secure women’s safety in our tea value chain. Brands like Dove have paved the way by changing beauty stereotypes – Dove’s Self Esteem Project was developed to ensure that the next generation grows up enjoying a positive relationship with the way they look – helping them to raise their self-esteem, realize their full potential and play an active role in society.

We have also invested in new research to better understand and help us tackle the stereotypes and cultural norms which lead to gender bias in the workplace. The findings, which we will present in more detail at the World Economic Forum Annual Meeting 2017 in Davos, are - if not altogether surprising - a stark reminder of how much needs to be addressed:

  • Women are held back by traditional beliefs, with social norms continuing to push women into traditional roles. Women feel like they have to “get over” the bad behaviour of males in the workplace, rather than speak up (52% of global respondents). Men feel they must change their behaviour when women walk in the room (64%).
  • Tradition takes hold. The impact of unequal sharing of housework and childcare is perceived differently: men don’t see the challenges posed by cultural norms that women do. Only 36% of men see unequal sharing of housework and childcare as an issue.
  • Both men and women share clearly defined and stereotypical views of what men and women are better at in the workplace. Launching a high-stakes project and heading massive organizational change are seen as men’s domains; planning events for co-workers and building company culture are viewed as women’s fortes.
  • Men want to push gender equality forward, but are held back by their conceptions and fear of change. There is a belief that men don’t really want women in senior leadership roles (75% of women, 59% of men agree that women are under-represented) suggesting a desire to sustain familiar masculine attitudes in business.
  • Depressingly, the “boys club”, like an old, outdated golf club, is still keeping women out of senior leadership roles. Of those surveyed, 72% globally agree that “men enjoy male camaraderie and bonding which is part of business” and that this contributes to “why women are largely under-represented in the C-Suite”. Men aren’t holding each other accountable: 55% highlight “men not challenging other men when they witness inappropriate behaviour” as one of the leading contributing factors to gender inequality in the workplace.

These largely unconscious biases and stereotypes are likely part of the reason behind the regression that – despite many well-meaning efforts – we have seen over the past year. To stop this backwards trend, and indeed to expedite progress towards gender parity, we must focus not only on policies, but also on the bias and negative stereotypes born of limiting social norms.

At Unilever, we have begun to assess our own role and are taking action in one of the areas in which we have the most impact: advertising. Through our research, we held a mirror up to ourselves and confirmed that advertising perpetuates unhelpful stereotypes:

  • 61% of men globally agreed advertising sets unrealistic expectations and pressure on men as the “alpha male hero”;
  • 63% of women globally agreed “advertising sets unrealistic expectations and pressure on women”);
  • 70% of respondents globally agreed it would be a better world if today’s children were not exposed to the gender stereotypes often portrayed in media and marketing.

In response to this, in June last year, we announced #unstereotype – a global ambition for all of our brands to advance advertising away from stereotypical portrayals of gender. We have only just started, but we are committed. And we are not only looking at our advertising – we have also made it a priority to promote opportunities for 5 million women by 2020 across our value chain: from our workplaces, through our supply chain and distribution networks; to our consumers, through our brands.

However, it would be foolish and arrogant of us to think that we can single-handedly change stereotypes or advance gender parity. By their very nature, norms and stereotypes are deeply entrenched. But this can be achieved, through sustained and collective action. Companies collaborating, or acting in concert, can exert a force greater than the sum of their parts – especially if they can also co-opt other organizations, governments and non-governmental bodies.

As business leaders, we must make use of joint platforms like the World Economic Forum’s System Initiative on Gender, Education and Work to embed the advancement of women in strategic and business goals. We must sign up to the Women’s Empowerment Principles, and support the work of influential groups, such as the UN High Level Panel on Women, to create powerful and lasting solutions.

We must not accept another year in which progress towards gender parity isn’t made and we certainly cannot wait 170 years for women to have the role that they deserve.